Fernando Alonso, McLaren, Circuit de Catalunya, 2016

Will McLaren make a leap or just a step forward in 2016?

2016 F1 season preview

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It’s a cliche to describe an upcoming year as a ‘big season’ for a particular team. But in the case of McLaren and their tie-up with Honda it may well be true.

Eric Boullier, Yusuke Hasegawa, McLaren, Circuit de Catalunya, 2016
Hasegawa, right, has taken over from Arai
The successes McLaren and Honda achieved together in the past cast a long and dark shadow over their disappointing 2015 reunion. The efforts of two world champion drivers were blighted by the Sakura-built power unit’s poor energy deployment and woeful reliability.

The effect that had on their drivers’ morale was all too obvious. A series of withering radio messages during races from Fernando Alonso hinted at his waning commitment and even prompted claims he might sit out this year if the car wasn’t good enough.

The team’s slump to the tail of the field has been accompanied by an alarming reduction in its sponsor portfolio. But encouragingly, after fielding an increasingly blank car in recent seasons, a few new sponsors have appeared on the flanks of the MP4-31 too.

The news continued to improve at pre-season testing, though it could hardly have gone worse than it did 12 months ago. Honda appears to have successfully addressed the two greatest shortcomings of its engine. The MP4-31 had covered more ground by lunchtime on day six of testing this year than its predecessor managed over all 12 days last year.

And yet the team still covered less ground with their 2016 challenger than Sauber, whose new car appeared at the second text, newcomers Haas and perennial backmarkers Manor. The MP4-31 looks like a step forward when what the team needs is a leap.

While McLaren underwent a major shake-up of its top staff only recently, further changes are taking place as the new season begins. Honda engine head Yasuhisa Arai has already been replaced by Yusuke Hasegawa. McLaren has also recruited Volkswagen’s motor sport chief Jost Capito who will arrive later in the year to work as the team’s racing CEO.

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Honda has been less willing to recruit from outside and this trait has been blamed for its slow progress with F1’s sophisticated engine regulations. It contrasts sharply with the approach of Renault, who was quick to re-hire Bob Bell following his spell at Mercedes.

McLaren has been unwavering in its commitment to Honda thus far, but it’s not as if there are a wealth of other options on the table. The recruitment of Capito might have been taken as an indication of a desire to court Volkswagen had the group not repeatedly dismissed the possibility it might enter F1.

That leaves McLaren-Honda doing it the hard way. Progress has been made, but it remains to be seen whether it will be enough. At least the relaxation of F1’s engine development rules means they won’t have to wait until the end of this season to make further gains.

14: Fernando Alonso

Fernando Alonso, McLaren, Circuit de Catalunya, 2016

Alonso’s return to McLaren last year could have gone as badly as his 2007 stint at the team did. But the partnership has held despite Alonso voicing his frustrations with the car’s poor performance and suffering pre-season crash the cause of which he and the team did not agree on.

In a recent radio interview Alonso admitted he tried to land a place at Mercedes in 2014 as he sought a way out of Ferrari. Now a decade since his last championship win, Alonso’s need for a competitive car is as urgent as ever. Don’t be surprised to hear rumours linking him to Renault if McLaren find themselves behind his former team.

22: Jenson Button

Jenson Button, McLaren, Circuit de Catalunya, 2016

Button has had his patience tested by Honda for longer than Alonso, having endured two dreadful years with them in 2007 and 2008. It says a lot about the belief he has in their ability to solve their problems that he has remained committed to them as he heads into his 17th season of competition.

He will inevitably face questions over how much longer he wishes to continue during the season ahead. But the driver who scored McLaren’s most recent victory to date will surely not want to hang his helmet up without getting another.

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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46 comments on “Will McLaren make a leap or just a step forward in 2016?”

  1. OmarRoncal - Go Seb!!! (@)
    8th March 2016, 13:03

    What a big challenge McLaren has ahead. But I’m pretty sure one of this “old” champions will feel it’s the last straw and retire soon. The tests showed they have improved reliability but the old problems were there too, and for Alonso, running just 3 laps in one of the test days might have resembled too much to last year nightmares.

  2. spafrancorchamps
    8th March 2016, 13:10

    Nicely written. I hope McLaren has got more up its sleeves than they showed during testing and that they’ve driven with a turned down engine. If not, it will be a dramatic season again.. Unless, they will not be far off Red Bull and Toro Rosso. Then they can develop towards a podium car (on Mickey Mouse tracks).

  3. The language coming out of Mclaren suggests a pretty disappointed team to me. They raved last season about the huge leaps expected for this season and yet, despite posting some half-decent laps and stint lengths, all we’ve had from Boullier and co are words to the tune of “a good step”, “improvement” or “encouraging”. What happened to all the enthusiasm and talk about this year being the one where it could potentially be Mclaren Honda’s turn to mix it with the podium contenders? Where’s all the excitement gone about only being able to win a world championship as a works outfit?
    Reading between the lines and interpreting the limited interviews we’ve had, Mclaren, rather than trying to sound cautious, look to me to be hugely disappointed with the PU and are strongly entertaining the prospect of languishing around the back of the field again and looking to scrape into double figures on the points board.

    1. @naz3012

      I would have to agree with you for most of what you mentioned. Everything about this pre season has been underwhelming for Mclaren.

      Boullier starts off by saying that the progress isn’t enough on Day 1. Then he follows those statements by saying he’s responsible for the chassis side, operations and drivers….. everything engine related should be addressed to Honda. This clearly shows the end of the ‘one team’ philosophy they adopted at the start.

      Jenson being his diplomatic greatest said, he was ‘pleased’ with the reliability and that the ERS deployment was a big step forward. He didn’t sounds excited about any extra grunt in the engine, nor did he have the courage to even compare it to Mercedes and Ferrari.

      Alonso has been pretty quiet on the issue, and instead of saying he’d compete for podiums this season just mentioned that Mclaren are on the road to podiums. Smartly enough he didn’t mention how long the road was.

      Arai got fired after the 1st day of testing. Let’s face it, if Honda had made major progress as expected, there would be no way that the person heading their Engine program was fired within hours of the Engine hitting the track.

      I think both Mclaren and Honda have learned from their ambitious ‘podiums & wins’ statements made last year. It was pretty much those statements that made them the laughing stock of the paddock. I think they are a little restrained in their predictions for the year, but you cannot deny that they just haven’t seen enough light at the end of the tunnel.

      As an Alonso fan, I really hope he leaves for Renault by the end of the season.

  4. Everyone in F1 likes to talk “smack” (in today’s parlance). No-one talks more smack than the people in the McLaren Honda team. I don’t believe a word they say. I think if they say something is going to happen and it actually happens it is because of pure coincidence and nothing more.

  5. They will improve, no doubt. But nothing to impressive in my opinion. On their case is really hard to do worse compared to last year.

    And their goals need to be realistic, saying that they are aiming to podium finishes is absurd. Yes they are mclaren but they have to humble themselves and forget about their history. Talk has to be done in the track, and that is something they haven’t done since they moved to Honda

  6. The signs are not good, I have to say. Honda still seem inward-looking, there was no evidence of top-line power, the chassis looked quite iffy through turns 2-3 in Barca, and production parts are late.

    The ingredients seem to be there, but so far it’s not working. It could turn around quite quickly I suppose, if Honda really have gone for a bigger turbo and arranged to cool it.

    Just have to hope really. But I’m expecting more progress from Renault, realistically.

  7. Big news breaking over at Sky too – Alonso confirming that McLaren will be his last team in F1. I believe JB’s made a similar commitment.

    All these things are just words and can easily be undone, but both drivers are piling on the pressure this year!

    1. Seems like a lot more hot air to be honest. Remember this?


      I also have a recollection of Alonso saying in the past said that Ferrari would be his last team?

      I’m not saying someone can’t change their mind, I’m just saying I take what Alonso says with a pinch of salt.

      1. Fudge Ahmed (@)
        8th March 2016, 15:12

        Beat me to it,don’t believe a word that comes out of Alonso’s mouth. He was denying leaving Ferrari to the public while the ink was still wet on the McLaren contract in 2014.

        1. @offdutyrockstar, that said, Motorsport magazine claimed that Ferrari pushed him out (with Marchionne wanting Vettel instead of Alonso given that he saw Alonso as being too strongly associated with Montezemolo), with Mattiacci essentially being hired for the sole purpose of getting rid of Alonso (with Ferrari promptly disposing of him after he had done that, as his usefulness to the team had been exhausted once Alonso was gone).

          1. Not sure Ferrari pushed him out. They offered him an extended contract to 2018 or 19 i think.
            There is an interview with James Allison, who said as soon as he went to Ferrari from Lotus, he had several meetings with Alonso, telling him that things would improve and trying to persuade to stay.

  8. Sviatoslav (@)
    8th March 2016, 14:18

    Honda hasn’t greatly improved the power unit regarding the power output, this is clear. I think that Alonso/Button will fight for 12-15 places at the finish line at best.
    There are 4-5 teams that are already very fast.
    The fact that McLaren (according to Boullier-man) will have a “nearly half-new” car in Australia, means that the car is not fast enough, and they have to better it as fast as they can, even without testing new things.

    This is what will happen (it’s pure speculation): Alonso and Button will leave the team at the end of this season. Honda will not improve next year either. McLaren, constantly being outside the top-10 for three years in a row, will ask Mercedes/Renault for an engine at the end of 2017. Honda will leave F1 at the same time. Since Renault will definitely enhance their engine (thanks to Illien input), they will be happy to supply engines to McLaren.
    Well, we will see what is going to happen in the real life soon.

  9. I believe that this season will be the last season for Button and possibly for Alonso. Alonso will start to look for a LeMans seat for next year in the middle of this season is my prediction

  10. Electing to partner with Honda was definitely the right idea, bur unfortunately the Honda PU still doesn’t seem to be quite where it needs to be.

    I really hope they can get there quickly – F1 needs a strong Mclaren and in particular needs its “newest” engine manufacturer to be successful to encourage other manufacturers into the fold.

    1. I think we have to view the progress made in contrast to the gains made by ferrari and Renault, they too have had a few years to catch Mercedes but to no avail. Therefore you cant expect Honda to catch them in an instance.

      I believe in the Mclaren brand, they have given me the most thrills for as long as I remember, lets support them and see we there come out.

      My reply is general not directed at anyone in particular

  11. Why are all fingers being pointed to Honda and none to Mclaren’s insistence on Size Zero?
    IMO, the size zero which limits the MGU-H’s output is also responsible for the woeful performance of Mclaren Honda.

    I predict Mclaren to be in the top 8 by Barcelona though, but a significant way behind Ferrari and Mercedes. A gap large enough that Alonso can’t overcome with his driving prowess.

    1. Most the top teams have a size zero this year and in testing appear to be both more reliable and faster. It is doubtful so simple as rubbish engine good car I would say the chassis is not great and McLaren have been terrible for years at this, last year they had the perfect cover for their poor chassis. If they really start to work at it they may just win…….the battle with Renault, Manor, Haas and Sauber.

      1. Aye Imagine if honda would go to Red Bull…

        In any case agreed fully. Engine also hampered any chassis directions. Hard to test chassis with reliability that poor.

        1. There was a rumour going round about Red Bull getting Honda engines so if by the end of this year the engine starts to get good McLaren would have only served to have done the dog work for Red Bull. That will be an interesting spat

    2. Size zero doesn’t limit engine output, as Honda has underline over and over. Every team is size zero this year. By your logic, all will now have limited engine output. Incorrect.

    3. Because most fans by now understand size zero was Honda’s idea.

      Or does that small detail not matter?

  12. a step not a leap

  13. I dearly want a big leap, but I am unfortunately expecting a lot more sucking through their teeth as the Japanese do when thing get tough – I live in this part of the world. Will still be rooting for Button in Melbourne – there for the first race

  14. Well, considering they had a GP2 engine last year… It will be a gigantic leap. I imagine they will be about as good as they were in 2014.. Which was bad for their high standards. So my prediction.. They are 2 seasons behind Mercedes.. Or worse 2 seasons behind Ferrari.

    But it seems they solved the majority of atleast reliability issues.

    Aerodynamics wise.. They seem very similar to Red Bull, probably they will talk smack how good their size 0 chassis is.

    To bad pretty much entire field now picked up on size 0 and Red Bull cues. So in all likeness they will be about average in that department.

    So average engine + average chassis… Is a major leap from appaling engine and indevelopmentchassis. They will be where they should have been last year.

    Rule changes cannot come soon enough for them.

    1. New Engine supplier couldn’t come soon enough either

  15. I feel like the title left out an option: A step, a leap… or just the very same position in the constructors they were last year?

  16. anything above fifth will be a leap, anything below seventh a disaster

  17. It looks like McLaren will make a big leap forward. Going from being perhaps 250hp down to 100hp down should be seen as a huge improvement alone. They just need another 2-3 leaps forward to get on the podium; not this season.

    1. They were never 250hp down. Experts had calculated that at some point’s on circuits with long straights, they didn’t have ERS deployment, and when coupled with the lack of power from their turbo, they were at the most 200hp down at the end of the straights. For most of the lap (on an average circuit), they were down anywhere between 100-130hp. Around 60hp of that deficit was from their turbo, and the remaining from the ERS.

      None of us know what’s truly going on, but if I had to guess –

      The evaluation of the new Honda PU was so underwhelming, that the only comparisons they made regarding grunt were comparable to the PU they were running in Abu Dhabi last year. If I had to guess – they haven’t even clawed back 100hp. The ERS improvement should give them an extra 30 to 40hp per lap, and the turbo another 30hp. On an average they must have gained 70hp from their PU. Mercedes and Ferrari however, are entirely capable of having found anywhere near 50 to 70hp themselves.

      Last year, Mclaren were around 3 seconds off Mercedes’ pace in Australia, and if I had to guess, they will start this season being 2 seconds off Mercedes’ pace. If they were 200hp down on long straights last year, they will be close to 150hp down this year. If they were 100 to 130hp down through most of the lap last year, they will probably be 70 to 80hp down per lap this time around.

      At not so power hungry circuits like Hungary and Monaco, I expect Mclaren to be 1 second off Mercdes’ pace, but that will be the best they can manage all year. A handful of points finishes and no podiums this year for them.

  18. How long can McLaren endure this losing streak before things get terminal?

    Imagine someone (other than Keith, obviously) had written a story in December 2012 – a mere three-and-a-half years ago – predicting that McLaren wouldn’t win another race for four or five years. It would have seemed ridiculous. McLaren won the last two races of 2012, and looked set for a good year in 2013 after they placed second at the first race. Then the wheels started to fall off the bus, and it’s been getting worse and worse ever since. Does anyone believe for a moment that McLaren will win a race this year? Frankly, a win *next* year, with the new technical changes, would be amazing.

    McLaren’s sudden demotion, not just to middle of the pack, but *backmarker*, must be hurting them financially as well as psychologically. As the sponsors depart, so does their money. At some point McLaren will lose too many people, too much expertise, too much money, and they will be no more likely to win championships than Sauber or even Williams – another team to go from undisputed front-runner to also-ran. Given McLaren’s business model – so different from Williams’ – this situation could spell disaster for the company if it endures much longer. How ironic it would be if the Honda engine starts to come good at the end of McLaren’s exclusivity period, and another team (Williams would be favourite) bolt it in and start winning.

    I’d say Mclaren have to show some decent form this year or they will be in dire straits. They don’t have to win, yet, but they need to show some menace – they have to make enough people *believe* that they’re only a step away from the champers. *Then* they have to win…

  19. I think, they still can’t step forward…

  20. I find the attitude from McLaren very frustrating. On the one hand they wanted a new engine supplier, but on the other hand they didn’t want to make life easy for them. They wanted the Honda engine to fit into a much smaller space than any other engine supplier has to deal with. When it became apparent the lack of space was causing problems for Honda, what does McLaren do? They keep on with the small space!
    I am expecting a better performance this year than last year, but a lot depends on the ability of the MGU-H to produce power. It seemed to me that last year’s unit was underpowered, so I am hopeful that this year’s unit will be much more powerful.

    1. Completely wrong.

      And the this year the Mclaren is a fatty compared to red bull and Toro Rosso and even Mercedes.

      So how are they much faster than mchonda if they are smaller?

      1. McLaren is much smaller at the back than Merc. Mercs one of the fattest which probably shows how slim a car is at the back does not mean it will be fast.

    2. @drycrust Sorry, it’s common knowledge now that Honda originated the ‘size zero’ concept.

      1. Nope. It was a requirement given by Mclaren to Honda. Arai mentioned that several times last year.

        Unfortunately, Mclaren gave Honda the brief about making a compact PU back in 2013, where aerodynamics was still key to success. Little did they know, engine would be king from 2014 onwards.

        What irritates me more about Mclaren is not learning from their mistakes. Ferrari made the same mistake in 2014, by trying to sacrifice PU performance for aero, as soon as they realised they were wrong, they fixed it for 2015 and saw an upswing in performance. Mclaren decided to continue down this ridiculous path by starting another season with a compromised PU with the hope that their chassis will make up nearly a 2 second loss in performance. The worst part is that despite compromising on their PU, they still don’t have the neatest rear end packaging on the grid.

        This whole thing spells massive disaster, and Mclaren have no one but themselves to blame.

        1. Nope. Ron even said Honda’s power unit ideas were in sync with mclarens chassis concepts.

          They had seperatly arrived at the same conclusion.

          Maybe the term ‘size zero’ was officially mclarens but that’s a marketing term and completely irrelevant to the high level idea behind it.

          What irritates me is fans saying mclarens size zero is a failed path. There are many reasons why they are suffering in performance, size zero has nothing to do with it at this point.

          Have you seen red bulls chassis this year? It’s size negative two.

  21. if everyone takes two steps and Macca makes one step, is that really a step forward?

  22. popcorn ready for Alonso’s exit….

  23. We simply can’t have a team like McLaren racing among the back-markers or lower-midfield any more. Other than the Ferrari, nobody else got any realistic chances to put any dent on Mercedes’s dominance, even with the new 2017 rules coming(maybe Renault after 3/4 years or Red Bull with a new PU manufacturer later).

    The amount of attention any McLaren articles/columns get everywhere, seems to point that I’m not alone with this observation.

  24. I think they will have made a step, but not a leap.
    They look much better on the chassis side, in testing, Alonso was 2nd /3rd fastest on a couple of sectors of the track.
    They are definitely down on HP, based on speed trap readings.
    What state of tune they were running – who knows. They probably concentrated more on doing laps and getting sufficient data, following last year’s testing debacle.
    I think they will be lower to midfield overall. May have some decent results on the lower power circuits, where the chassis/handling will be more of an advantage

  25. ILuvSoundtracks (@)
    9th March 2016, 15:50

    I won’t support McLaren this season, but I wish them best of luck.

  26. Big news.. New sponsors for McLaren.

    Automotive company Calsonic Kansei have signed a multi Year partnership with Macca.

    Curiously, Calsonic is owned by Nissan!!

    I wonder if this will be their title sponsor. No song and dance from Ron.. So perhaps not!!

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